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Headscarves and Discrimination in Europe
Photo courtesy of Francisco Lopez, UCLA School of Law

Headscarves and Discrimination in Europe

Author of 'The Islamic Challenge' says moderate European Muslims face challenges from all sides, should be consulted on security issues.

Angilee Shah Email AngileeShah

Moderate Muslims in Europe 'now find themselves increasingly wounded in the crossfire between xenophobes and Islamists.'

Jytte Klausen's new book chronicling Muslims' relationships with their European homes, The Islamic Challenge, has become ever more timely since she began the project in 2002.

In November 2004, a Dutch filmmaker was murdered after making a controversial film about Islam. In the summer of 2004, the captors of two French journalists held hostage in Iraq for five months demanded that France repeal a law passed that year that banned headscarves in state schools. And this February, at least 45 people have been killed around the world in protests against cartoons published by a Danish newspaper of the Prophet Muhammad.

A Dane by birth, Klausen is a professor of politics at Brandeis University and a research associate at Harvard University's Center for European Studies. She spoke about her research on Feb. 21 at a lecture hosted by the Globalization and Labor Standards Project and co-sponsored by UCLA Law Critical Race Studies Program, the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies and the UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations. From 2002 to 2005, she interviewed 300 Muslim political elites living in Europe, including legislators, city council members, and leaders of large Muslim associations in Sweden, Demark, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom. The level of discontent was startling, she reported.

Members of parliament in Denmark and the Netherlands told Klausen they planned to leave those countries because they saw no future for their children.

The Western European countries in the study are member states of the European Court of Human Rights which enforces the 1953 Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have bills of rights that substantiate religious freedom to varying degrees, but only the United Kingdom has adopted the Convention as law. In France, religious discrimination is a criminal offense that is rarely brought to trial. The French government does not keep statistics of religious beliefs, making it difficult to establish patterns of discrimination, Klausen said.

State regulations, however, were not always seen as the culprits in European discrimination against Muslims. In Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, Klausen said, interviewees were more personally dissatisfied than displeased with the laws of their countries. In a recent article published in Salon, Klausen wrote that, since the row over the Prophet cartoons began, moderate Muslims in Europe "now find themselves increasingly wounded in the crossfire between xenophobes and Islamists."

In her talk, Klausen also observed that moderate European Muslims are as concerned as anyone about terrorism and what they see as states' failure to counter radical Islam. In Denmark, for example, there is no regularization of who can become an imam, or Muslim religious leader, and it was a radical imam who "shopped" the infamous Prophet Muhammad cartoons around the Middle East, Klausen said.

She advocated working with Muslim organizations to counter recruitment by Jihadist groups. The British government, Klausen said, has taken good steps toward approaching national security issues with the help of Muslims by regularly meeting and consulting with Muslim associations. "There has, in Britain, been a real understanding that some of these security issues are also a real concern for Muslims," she said.

Klausen's talk at UCLA focused on employment discrimination, cases in which Muslims' headscarves, or hijab, were banned from the workplace or used as the basis for dismissal. When the European Court of Human Rights in November 2005 upheld Turkey's ban on hijab at universities, Klausen said, it was trying to bolster the French law affecting public schools. A 2003 ruling in Germany allowed a teacher to wear her headscarf, but also said states have the authority to pass laws banning headscarves.

"The downstream effects of [the German] ruling have been devastating," said Klausen. Women on academic tracks, teachers, and salespeople have been losing their jobs or not hired as states pass laws banning hijab, she said.

However, in the United Kingdom, last March, a court upheld the right of a student at a largely Muslim high school to wear the jilbab, an ankle-length gown worn with a scarf.

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